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If you ever wanted to listen to the God of Hellfire and I blathering away about various topics of interest to weirdos everywhere, you, my friends, are in luck. We have started a podcast called 13 O’Clock, which will feature subjects ranging from supposedly real paranormal cases to unsolved historical mysteries to bizarre religious cults to creepy serial killers to horror movies and everything in between. Some of the episodes will be just us, some of them will have awesome guests like parapsychologists, writers, musicians of a darker nature, and so forth.
On our inaugural episode, we discuss the tragic case of Doris Bither, whose alleged poltergeist attacks were the basis of the 1982 film The Entity; and on the second half, we delve into one of our favorite topics, conspiracy theories and hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining.
Listen to the audio-only version right here, and if you want some relevant visuals to go along with our musings, then I also made a pretty YouTube video version, which you may watch right here.
In my previous post comparing Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining with Stephen King’s vastly inferior TV miniseries, I offhandedly mentioned the staggering variety of “conspiracy theories” surrounding Kubrick’s film without going into particular detail about any of them. I didn’t think it was necessary to exhaustively catalogue all the crazy interpretations that have appeared over the years, not only because there are endless sites already doing just that (hell, Shining conspiracy theories even have their own wiki, and just last year a documentary called Room 237 outlined the most common ones), but also because I think the great majority of them are utter, overreaching horseshit. No, I do not believe that Kubrick was trying to send us secret messages about faking the moon landing, or about CIA mind control, or about the Holocaust, or about the impending Mayan apocalypse.
Artists, particularly ones of Kubrick’s caliber, absolutely do put hidden meanings and subtexts into their work, and it would be silly to argue that they don’t. This doesn’t mean that they’re trying to impart some kind of secret knowledge about the universe’s inner workings or anything; it’s just that they’re trying to make their films or books or whatever a richer experience for their audience by adding “clues” to underlying themes for the viewers to puzzle out on their own. It’s hard to deny that Kubrick’s TheShining is loaded with this stuff, and obviously a great deal of it was deliberate, because that’s what artists, at least good ones, try to do.
After my recent rewatch of the TV miniseries, I spent several hours poring over different people’s interpretations of Kubrick’s film, and then decided to rewatch his 1980 adaptation with the various “conspiracies” in mind. After the film, the God of Hellfire and I were discussing it yet again (and yes, I can totally see why this movie has spawned so much obsessive speculation since it came out, thank you for asking), and suddenly, the GoH had something of a revelation (and this will be kinda funny later, I promise).*
Here’s the deal. Several of the so-called conspiracy theories out there (and I hesitate to call them that; I prefer to call them subtexts or motifs) have hit upon different facets of Kubrick’s overarching theme. But the GoH’s post-film epiphany (and all credit to him, as it was his excited discourse that inspired me to wade into the fray and write this post) seemed to tie together many of the more reasonable theories put forth by others into one coherent whole. I slogged through several pages of Google searches to see if anyone else had come up with this particular angle before, and while I found it hinted at in several places, I found no one who had laid the entire thing out in a clear framework the way the GoH did. If after reading this post you can find someone who has hit upon this exact slant, then kindly point me in that direction, but for now, I’m going give tentative props and kudos to my sexy male counterpart for coming up with what seems to be a pretty original take on Kubrick’s masterpiece. So let me see if I can break this all down.
Exhibit One: Native American Genocide
By far the most common and obvious subtext attributed to TheShining has to do with the slaughter of the Native Americans. Near the beginning of the film, as he is giving the Torrance family a tour of the Overlook, manager Stuart Ullman tells them point blank that the hotel was built over a Native American burial ground, and further, that a few “Indian attacks” had to be “repelled” while the Overlook was under construction in the early 20th century. In addition, the hotel itself is decorated in a Native American theme (Navajo and Apache, according to Ullman), there are several conspicuous placements of cans of Calumet baking powder (Calumet uses a Native American in a warrior’s headdress as its logo, and the word “calumet” means “peace pipe”), and many of Wendy Torrance’s fashion choices bear Native American-style motifs. There is also Jack’s twice-repeated use of the phrase “white man’s burden” to Lloyd the bartender as he is downing his bourbon (with alcohol being yet another purported tool of the natives’ subjugation by whitey).
Other interpreters of this particular thematic element have stated that Kubrick was making a not-so-subtle indictment of the Native American genocide, and it’s easy to see how they come to that conclusion. In this scenario, Jack represents the “white man” who subjugates his wife and son the way the Europeans subjugated the native population. But according to the GoH’s reading of it, this is only tangentially correct. I will go into more detail about this after I’ve laid out all the tendrils, so just be patient.
Exhibit Two: The Minotaur’s Maze
Another fairly obvious touchstone in Kubrick’s film is the repeated reference to the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The director significantly changed King’s hedge animals to a hedge maze, and Wendy even compares the hotel itself to a maze as Halloran is showing her around the kitchen. In addition, the carpet patterns in much of the hotel’s decor are decidedly mazelike. Further, there is one scene that shows an increasingly bullish-appearing Jack lurking menacingly over a model of the maze, staring down at it as tiny simulacrums of his wife and son navigate their way through the real labyrinth outside. And at the climax, of course, Jack chases Danny through the maze, his speech becoming more and more animalistic as the chase progresses. Danny even finds his way out of the maze by following his father’s footprints in the snow, just as Theseus followed the golden thread (it’s also significant in this context that the main ballroom of the Overlook is called “The Gold Room”).
Exhibit Three: The Faust Connection
Right here is where we’re getting close to hitting upon the underlying framework that ties the disparate elements together. It is significant that the phrase Jack utters just before the first appearance of Lloyd the bartender is, “I’d give my soul for a drink.” Seconds after this pronouncement, Lloyd is standing before him and immediately indulges his wish, and it is from here that Jack’s true downward spiral begins. So in this sense, Jack has just made a Faustian bargain with the Devil, or in this case the “spirit” of the Overlook hotel, represented by Lloyd. Further evidence of this particular theme comes in the very final moments of the film, when we see a closeup of the black-and-white photo from 1921 on the wall of the Overlook. Jack is standing before a crowd of jazz-age partygoers, with his right hand raised, palm facing toward us, and his left hand by his side, pointing toward the floor. This strange pose subtly recollects the Tarot figure of Baphomet, aka, Satan, y’all.
Sure, Goddess, I hear you saying, but all of those theories have been put forth many times, so what the hell is so compellingly new that you felt you had to blather on and on about it? Well, hear me out now. How can these three seemingly different themes be all of one piece? The GoH thinks he knows how, and it can be summed up in two words: Black. Magic. Or perhaps more specifically, ancient pagan religion, fostered through blood sacrifice and ritual.
I admit it sounds sort of crackpotty at first blush, but consider the following:
1. During his first interview at the Overlook, Jack wonders why the hotel is closed during the winter months, since it seems that the skiing up there would be fantastic. Ullman tells him that it would not be cost-effective to keep the 25-mile road leading up to the Overlook open, and then significantly adds that at the time the hotel was built, its clientele were not interested in winter sports as much as they were the “seclusion” of the Overlook’s location, and its beautiful natural view.
2. As Ullman is showing the Torrances around the hotel’s interior, he mentions that scads of movie stars, presidents, and other prominent folks (including well-known gangsters, though he doesn’t explicitly mention that) have graced the Overlook’s hallowed halls. “Royalty?” Wendy asks. “All the best people,” answers Ullman.
3. Near the end of the film, as Wendy is frantically running around the hotel looking for Danny, she briefly sees an apparition of a clearly Very Important Dude in a tux getting blown by a man in a bear costume. While this is going on, and at several points subsequently as Jack chases Danny through the maze, the soundtrack of the film treats us to background “music” that sounds an awful lot like ritualistic chanting.
So what do these three details mean in relation to the well-worn theories I outlined above? Well, in the GoH’s perceptive scenario, the Overlook itself can be seen as a sort of temple of black magic, or perhaps more concisely, a place of ancient pagan worship much like the sacrificial temples of the Mayans, the Happy Hunting Grounds of the Native Americans, or the Valhalla of the Vikings. It was created, either deliberately or accidentally, to act as a place that “shined,” that used the power of sacrifice — either through blood or the psychic energy of people with the “shining” — as a consecration to create a vortex of eternal debauchery akin to a type of hell (or perhaps a heaven, depending on your perspective).
Think about it. The Overlook was built as a playground for the wealthy elite. Said elite were keen to make sure that the location was “secluded.” Not only was the hotel slapped right on top of an Indian burial ground, but Native Americans were “repelled” (i.e. killed, sacrificed) during its construction. Further, the hotel was then festooned with Native American symbology. The Colorado Lounge in particular, with its tall stained glass windows, high ceilings, and Jack’s writing desk in place of an altar, looks like nothing so much as a sort of pagan cathedral.
Not only was this made to be perhaps a sort of mockery or inversion of the Native Americans’ spiritual beliefs (in much the same way the Satanic Black Mass can be seen as an inversion of Christianity), but also as a type of co-option or embracing of the primal qualities of those that were sacrificed. Why would the wealthy elite who patronized the hotel want it to be so secluded, after all, unless they were planning on using it as a place to indulge their “baser” natures and embrace the primal, the primitive, the savage, the animalistic? Murder, crime, debauchery, decadence, endless partying, wild sex: these were the “rituals” in this new “industrial” tribe of rich white elites. (Incidentally, this may be why Halloran was able to work at the Overlook for so long without being assimilated, because by being black, he was of the wrong “tribe.”) They didn’t just want to plow under the “pagans,” you see, they also wanted to become them, or at least become like their own perception of the “savages” as man close to a state of nature. By indulging in their “primitive” shenanigans and trying to overcome their own detachment from nature, they perhaps inadvertently created something that a tribe of “primitives” would have created on purpose: a cult of nature that was fed with blood and sex magic.
So they built a swanky pleasure palace on sacred ground, tamed the natural landscape into a regimented hedge maze, and then proceeded to out-savage the “savages.” Ullman’s demarcation of the Overlook’s clientele as “all the best people” was perhaps Kubrick slyly insinuating that the rich degenerates who stayed at the hotel were not the “best” people at all. Maybe they weren’t even the worst people. They were just people like any other, prone to brutality and primitivism just like anyone else, though afforded greater latitude in their pursuit of degeneracy because of their exalted status. This is why the “animal” theme recurs, not only in the Minotaur allusions (the child sacrifice theme is clearly pertinent in this myth, and what were the Greco-Romans known for if not pagan debauchery?) and the bear costume, but in subtle animal motifs that appear in Danny’s drawings, background posters, characters’ clothing, and other places around the hotel.
And this is why the odd chanting on the soundtrack recurs, as a sort of cue to the viewer that the temple is about to accept a new infusion of blood and energy. The Overlook indeed strikes a Faustian bargain with its chosen victims: make a sacrifice of blood (Grady’s daughters, Halloran, the attempted killing of Wendy and Danny) and for you and your sacrificial victims, the “party” will continue forever.
*One of the more out-there theories that I didn’t go into in this post concerns Kubrick’s supposed use of recurring numbers in the film. While there’s no doubt that certain numbers turn up more than you would expect by chance alone (42 and 12 most prominently), and there is probably some reason why Kubrick chose to do this (especially since he deliberately changed the number of the scariest room from 217 in the book to 237 in the film; as others have pointed out, 2+3+7=12 and 2x3x7=42), I’ve always been of the opinion that the various “numerological” theories put forth about TheShining mostly strain credulity.
But in light of the GoH’s reading of the Overlook as a sort of “Satanic temple” metaphor, I thought I’d toddle on over to some numerology websites and see if those numbers had any particular significance (and yes, since you ask, I am a little embarrassed that those sites are now in my Google cache). I’m not gonna say that there’s necessarily anything to these numerological interpretations, but interestingly, in the Bible, Revelation 13:5 states: “The Beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months.” The number 42, you guys. Douglas Adams was right!
So…TheShining and ancient magic: yay or nay? Please throw hosannas or brickbats as the case may be. And until next time, Goddess out.
It seems as though I start a lot of these blog posts with a half-assed apology for not sticking to my own arbitrary, self-imposed “rules” for the content I discuss, and I regret to inform you that this is going to be another one of those times. Yes, The Shining and the well-publicized blood feud between Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick has been the subject of nearly endless internet debate, but for some reason it’s a subject I’m obsessively fascinated by and often get into long, rambling conversations about, which means that you will now have to endure said ramblings in my patented type-diarrhea form. Sorry in advance. (Not really.)
I’m going to go in a slightly skewed direction with this, though; rather than discuss the drastic differences between King’s book and Kubrick’s film, and the subsequent 34-year hatefest between them, I’d like to delve more into the contrasts between Kubrick’s film and King’s 1997 mini-series adaptation. Yes, I will obviously have to talk about the book too, so readers may see this as a distinction without a difference, but hey, I’m trying to just carve out a semi-original niche for myself here, so cut me some slack.
Let me just take a few moments to talk about Stephen King as a writer. I would consider myself a fan, though I admit I haven’t read anything of his newer than Under the Dome, which I enjoyed but promptly forgot the second I finished it. I definitely feel as though the quality of his work has declined post-car-accident, and I know I am not alone in that opinion; his more recent work just doesn’t stick with you the way his earlier stuff does. I would never go so far as to call him a hack, as some have done; he’s a very good “popular” writer, and he’s written some absolutely GREAT books, The Shining among them. Is The Shining as great as, say, Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, which partly inspired it? Hell no, and only an idiot would argue otherwise. But The Shining scared the ever-loving bejesus out of me the first time I read it, and has held up very well over multiple re-reads over the years. When King is on, he’s really, really on.
Here’s what I find weird, though. I’ve mentioned a few times in previous posts how much I love Danse Macabre, King’s scattershot but surprisingly astute analysis of horror in entertainment. In fact, on this very blog, I have used paraphrases from that book to back up some of my own viewpoints about what works and doesn’t work in horror; namely, that ambiguity and perhaps even obfuscation are necessary for really effective scares. What is unknown and largely unexplained is always more terrifying than what is known. King seems to grasp this, and even singles out books and films that were effective for this very reason, but when he is given the reins of a film project, he never seems to take his own advice. He has never really appeared to understand that literature and film are two completely different (hedge) animals; in a novel, you can, to some degree, get away with huge chunks of exposition and meticulous description of detail, because you are creating an entire world in the reader’s head. In film, everything is paraded right in front of your eyes, which means you have to exercise some measure of restraint, both in what you show and what you keep hidden. This is something that King has never really been able to do, judging both by adaptations of his work that he’s had a hand in (like Maximum Overdrive, which was similar to pro-wrestling in the sense that it was big, loud, and stupid, but also sorta fun, though no one would call it a masterpiece of celluloid), and adaptations done by others that he claimed he enjoyed (Children of the Corn, The Mangler). King is a good writer, and to be frank, sometimes I wish that he would just be content enough with that, and not try to dabble in mediums that are obviously not suited to his (quite prodigious) talents.
All that said, let’s dissect the 1997 mini-series, shall we? I remember seeing it when it initially came out; since I had always been such a big fan of both the book and of Kubrick’s adaptation, and was well aware of King’s tendency to royally whiff any film project he touched, I went into the viewing with some trepidation. And I’m sad to say that most of my worst fears about King’s version duly came to pass, and I ended up not even finishing the series because I hated it so much.
Fast forward to 2014. The God of Hellfire (henceforth GoH) and I were discussing The Shining because of a radio program we’d been listening to about Kubrick’s use of symbolism. I think I happened to mention that I had really detested the 1997 mini-series that King had made, as it seemed like nothing more than a self-indulgent, jealousy-fueled, bitchy dismissal of Kubrick’s singular vision. The GoH said that he’d actually liked the mini-series, mainly because he felt it was closer to the spirit of the book and followed the plot more faithfully (though he still agrees that Kubrick’s version was better). I hadn’t seen the thing in a long time, and I was willing to entertain the idea that the mini-series might not have been quite as terrible as I remembered, so late one night we sat down with our cigarettes and chocolate milk and watched the entire six hours in one go.
I will say straight out that indeed, the mini-series was actually not the atrocity I’d remembered it as. It wasn’t great, by any means, and parts of it were pretty cringe-inducing, but at no point during its run time did I feel as though I wanted to scoop out my own eyeballs or drop-kick a puppy into a wood chipper or anything like that. So…not awful, but a mediocre misfire at best. The problem with the entire production, I think, is what I was alluding to earlier, about King not fully understanding the differing strengths and weaknesses of the film medium as opposed to the literature medium. King’s version of The Shining is certainly far more faithful to the source material than Kubrick’s, perhaps even slavishly so, but that, to me, is the exact reason why it doesn’t really work.
The main difference between the two adaptations is that King’s was literal while Kubrick’s was mythic. A stark illustration of this is the fact that King’s mini-series was filmed in and around the Stanley Hotel, the real location that the Overlook was based on, while Kubrick’s Overlook, built entirely as a set, had a more otherworldly, dreamlike, and hence mythical quality.
One of King’s main criticisms of Kubrick’s film was that in casting Jack Nicholson, Kubrick presents a man who is clearly a raging lunatic right from the get-go. King tried to rectify this by casting “Wings” star Steven Weber as Jack Torrance 2.0, but I have to say that both King’s criticism and his attempt to realign the character to more suit his tastes is not really fair or effective. Weber is a good enough actor, but it’s obvious he’s striving to play Jack as a fallen “good” guy, and his portrayal suffers from a veneer of forced joviality. This is a character, remember, who was even portrayed in the book as an abusive alcoholic who may have had some redemptive qualities at his core. Nicholson’s Jack, while certainly something of a departure from the novel character, was more effective on screen because he exuded the anger and desperation of a man teetering on the brink of insanity at all times. This made him almost unbearably menacing, and thus the film that much more frightening.
King’s most persistent gripe, though, was that Kubrick’s film was soulless, that the heart of King’s book was ripped out and stomped flat in service to Kubrick’s coldly logical exploration of pet themes. While I can see why King would see it that way, I feel that he’s kind of missing the point. Yes, Kubrick simply used the frame of King’s story to hang his own vision on, and along the way may have altered the original intent of King’s novel (though not as much as King thinks he did, in my opinion). But I don’t think Kubrick was so much concerned with the sentimental, pedestrian tragedy of Jack’s downward spiral as he was with creating an archetypal meditation on isolation, evil, and the fragility of our rational humanity.
So Kubrick’s film featured an elegant hedge maze (shades of Theseus and the minotaur!) in place of King’s roving hedge animals (which looked painfully ridiculous in the mini-series when they began walking around like green CGI Scooby-Doos). Kubrick’s film kept aspects of the hotel’s history ambiguous (the woman in the bathtub, the blow job furries) to mirror the confusion and dislocation of the characters, while King drops a pallet-load of exposition about all the horrible things that happened at the Overlook in pretty much the first ten minutes of his adaptation. Kubrick’s film had those creepy twins, King’s had a hose with CGI teeth. Kubrick’s film has Danny talking to the “imaginary” Tony using nothing but his own croaking voice and a bent finger, King’s shows Tony in all his nerdy, floating, special-effect-y glory. Kubrick’s film keeps apparitions to a minimum, making them super-effective and frighteningly real when they do appear. King, meanwhile, populates the Overlook with hundreds of partying guests who appear and disappear in tendrils of smoke, and some of whom are afflicted with tragically bad “ghost” makeup. Kubrick’s film ends with Jack simply freezing to death in the middle of the maze, and the Overlook enduring with Jack’s unredeemed spirit trapped there for eternity, a testament to the fact that evil never dies. King’s film ends with Jack fighting two laughably bumbling spirits for control of the boiler’s vent pipe (and oh, that trite “boiling over/letting off steam” metaphor is hurting me right in my literary gland), then letting the whole hotel blow up with him inside it in a silly, unnecessary “redemption.”
At every turn, King chose to portray in his film the story exactly as he had originally written it, and at every turn, this was shown to be a mistake of plodding literalism over filmic mythmaking. King’s only sop to the novel I actually kind of liked was the fact that, as in the book, Halloran didn’t get killed at the end. I actually understand (and even agree with) the reasons Kubrick chose to kill off Halloran immediately after he arrived at the Overlook; after all, it showed that even despite Halloran’s own supernatural gifts and his tireless race to rescue Danny and Wendy, the evil of the hotel was just too powerful for him. It was still kind of a bummer, though. So yay for Halloran not dying.
I will say that the acting was actually decent for this type of thing, by which I mean, it wasn’t awful, but it was okay in a TV-movie sort of way. I didn’t get the sense that these were real people the way I did in Kubrick’s version; say what you will about Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall (and I happened to think the casting was pretty spot-on), but they played those roles with conviction, son. The little boy who played Danny in King’s version had a very distracting mouth that he never seemed to be able to close and he always talked like he had a sinus infection, but I’m not gonna pick on a kid for shit he probably can’t help. He was fine, even though I didn’t believe him as a real character either, mostly because of his oddly stilted dialogue.
Which brings me to another of the film’s glaring weaknesses: THAT dialogue, because of course you knew I would come to that. King, even in his books, is actually fairly adept at writing relatable characters, but he does have a well-documented habit of putting weird regionalisms and repeated “catchphrases” into the mouths of his protagonists. I can forgive this in his novels, as it’s usually not frequent enough to be grating; even though I don’t know a single person who talks like a Stephen King character in real life, on the page it’s an acceptable aspect of the unique world King has created with his stories. Hearing these “cute” verbal touchstones spoken aloud many, many times over the course of a mere six hours, however, is quite another matter. I swear I thought I was going to strain something from wincing so hard in empathetic embarrassment with Steven Weber as he had to repeatedly refer to Danny as a “pup” and incessantly scream at him to “take his medicine.” Over and over and over again. And that whole “kissing/missing” thing was so egregious that I almost felt like King was trying with all his might to forcefully wedge a catchphrase into the public consciousness so he could sell it on T-shirts or something. In that way it was kind of like the “Bazinga!” of its day, if you catch my meaning.
And then there was that epilogue, which as far as I can remember did not appear in the novel (and please correct me if I’m wrong). Ten years later, Wendy and Halloran are watching Danny graduating from high school, and we can see that (surprise), the grown-up Danny is actually the previously floating but now sadly earthbound Tony. As Danny collects his diploma, he sees his father standing there, and Jack repeats that horrible “kissing/missing” line and then they blow a kiss to each other in what is probably the creepiest and most unrealistic father-son moment ever captured on film. Yeesh.
Look, I understand that The Shining was a very personal story for King, based as it was on many of his own struggles with alcoholism, and I can even see why, when he made the film after having been sober for so long, he’d want to add in that little “hooray for redemption” fillip at the end there, as if to say, “See, the alcohol made us both monsters but we came through it and made everything okay and we’re still good guys, even if it’s only in the Jedi afterlife like Jack here.” I get that. But keep it out of your movies, man (and your books, wherever possible). It’s self-indulgent, sappy, and frankly sort of tawdry, the kind of ending I’d expect to see in a Nicholas Sparks movie or one of those Lifetime disease-of-the-week deals. Don’t cheapen what was originally a great story with manipulative mawkishness, yo.
In summation, the reason Kubrick’s adaptation is widely adored and generally considered one of the top five scariest films ever made is precisely because he restrained his emotional impulse and chose to elevate its source material to make an artistic statement. He trusted the audience to fill in their own blanks. He took what was a good story about a decent man being tragically consumed by demons, and he added layers and layers of subtext and symbolism, universalizing the story far beyond its dysfunctional family roots and turning it into a terrifying, complex fable that can be (and has been) interpreted in myriad ways. King’s 1997 adaptation, by contrast, simply took what was on the page and slapped it on the screen in an ordinary way, more or less word-for-word, thereby draining the narrative of any vitality or visual impact. It left no room for the viewer; everything was painfully laid out in front of you and over-explained to the rafters. An argument could be made that it is theoretically possible to craft a more faithful adaptation of King’s novel that is still a fantastic film, but unfortunately, this mini-series isn’t it.